UT Should Pick a President Who Knows the Words to ‘Rocky Top’

It’s obvious that the fix was in for the Board of Regents to hire Deputy Governor John Morgan as its new chancellor. They changed the job description to fit him and they didn’t interview anyone else. This has caused conniptions in higher ed circles in-state and nationally.

Well, tough.

One can only hope (probably in vain) that the same process would be used to select a new president for the University of Tennessee. The same process in the sense of looking around the state and finding someone with managerial ability, political skills, and public popularity to be the public face of the university system. Leave the academics to the chancellors at each campus.

Morgan worked in the comptroller’s office through much of his career and was state comptroller for about the last 10 years of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh’s regime. When the Republicans took over, they replaced him and he moved to be Gov. Phil Bredesen’s deputy governor.

Morgan is smart, experienced in state government and probably knows more about the state budget than anyone else. He has the political skills to represent Regent schools before the Legislature. Some state senators are questioning the selection, but the only thing I see wrong with it is that they shouldn’t have given him a huge raise. He needs to turn it down or Republican senators will be all up in his face. His hiring was controversial, but the raise is a handy tool to bash the selection.

The president of the University of Tennessee system is an administrative job with political and public relations responsibilities. The chancellors at each campus should be in charge of faculty selection, academics, and running the campuses. The president needs a different set of skills. That should be obvious given the track record of the last three presidents who came in from out of state and ran off the rails.

UT’s new president should be someone who knows and understands the cockamamie structure of the university, understands Tennessee and its politics, and has the ability to interact with the business community and the all-important contractors related to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

We don’t need someone who has to have months of orientation to understand the situation. The most successful presidents in recent years have come from within the university itself.

There has been some concern about the Sunshine Law preventing a thorough vetting of presidential candidates. It is a problem when you are dealing with strangers. But if we look within the UT system or around the state there are people who have a track record, a history, and a familiarity that negates that problem.

We could look to people like Dr. Jerry Askew, former Dean of Students at UT, now a vice president for Mercy Health Systems, or Dr. Warren Neel, former dean of the business school. Or even people outside academia, like out-going governor Bredesen. (There is precedent: Remember UT President Lamar Alexander?)

There are also some capable business people on the UT Board of Trustees, like Doug Horne: a UT graduate, a successful businessman, and with some experience in politics.

My point is that the criteria for UT president ought to be hiring someone who can do the job and engender support from the public and the Legislature as well as the campuses.

The Board of Regents schools, which are four-year colleges and community colleges not a part of the UT system, will have a good advocate in former Comptroller Morgan, and someone with tremendous budgeting skills. He knows every member of the Legislature.

I’m not advocating for any particular person, I’m throwing names out as examples. My point is that there are a lot of capable people around the state who are trusted, respected, and who love the university. They bleed orange. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a UT president who didn’t see attending a UT football game as a chore but more as a religious experience?

Rather than hire another president who might have a rocky tenure, maybe we could hire one who knows all the words to “Rocky Top.”

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